Inside Magnum Comics and Cards in Riverdale in the Bronx, owner Neal Shtzoff rummages through paperwork behind a glass display case filled with old Topps baseball cards. The wall across from him, reaching from ceiling to floor, is lined neatly with an impressive array of comic books with titles like “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl,” “Moon Knight,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
It is mid-afternoon, the store is empty and Shtzoff is waiting for his only store employee, a middle-aged man named Tony, to arrive, so that he can leave for the day to pick up his two children from school. To Shtzoff, a self-proclaimed comic book junkie, opening up a comic book business was a dream come true: a way for him to get comic books cheaper, and 24 years later, his business is still going strong.
Comic book stores, like Magnum Comics, in and around the Bronx continue to survive, but another thing can be said about the borough’s conventional bookstores. There are no small independent bookstores in the Bronx and only the Barnes and Noble in the Co-op City section of the Bronx is left and even it threatened to close its doors in October 2014. It didn’t, but if it had, there would be no more conventional bookstores left in the borough, a development that would have left nearly 1.5 million people with inadequate access to books near their homes.
“They’re all gone. Having the books digitally kills it for a lot of people,” Shtzoff said about the lack of bookstores in his borough. “But with comics it’s a different story.”
According to the American Booksellers Association the U.S. independent bookseller industry is on the rise and is recovering from the financial crisis, while larger companies like Barnes and Noble have been deeply affected. Retail sales at independent bookstores across the country were down by 0.8 percent in January 2015 with sales estimated at $1.49 billion compared to $1.5 billion in January 2014, according to an update found on the American Booksellers Association website. Meanwhile, while profits at Barnes and Noble were up 14 percent in the latest quarter, revenue was off by two percent.
According to Shtzoff, comic book stores in the Bronx, on the other hand, seem to be doing well. He says he thinks this is the case because of loyal customers and collectors. Speculators come into the shop once in a while to see how much a certain comic is worth. But movies and television series, like The Walking Dead and Guardians of the Galaxy, keep interest in comics fresh. Every time a comic book is made into a movie or show, it sparks a new awareness of the actual comic book the storyline was based on. And that translates into more customers.
The invention of e-readers and tablets has also taken a toll on the bookstore business, because people could now store books in surplus in one little portable device. Though comic books are also made digitally, many comic book fans prefer reading a print version of a comic, Shtzoff said.
“The good thing about [comics] is people want to see the stuff and hold it,” Shtzoff said. “Even illustrators don’t like digital comics because it brings out flaws in the artwork.”
Bookstores also face stiff competition from online competitors, like Amazon and Ebay, where a book reader can purchase a book in just minutes and sometimes for rates much cheaper than found at book retailers like Barnes and Noble. For example, a paperback copy of J.D. Salinger’s classic novel “The Catcher in the Rye” can be found at barnesandnoble.com for $8.99, while a used copy of the same book can be bought on Amazon for just one penny with an added $3.99 shipping fee.
Online stores sell comic, but they don’t pose too much of a threat to comic book stores because many comic book collectors still like to check out their comics in person.
“More people tend to buy physical copies in hand,” said Damien Torres, an aspiring comic book illustrator and employee at The Spider’s Web comic book store in Yonkers.
At The Spider’s Web, just a few miles away from Magnum Comics and Cards, customers can walk in and read comic books before buying and they can interact with the workers, who are just as big comic book fans as the shop’s owner, Paul Borrero, a comic book collector of 30 years.
With its cases of action figures, a wide range of games and comic books for all ages, The Spider’s Web, which opened in 2013, is a place where customers can enjoy all that the comic world has to offer.
Borrero recently shared a story of a young boy, who came into the store interested in playing with Yu-Gi-Oh! trading cards, a collectible battle card game based off the Japanese cartoon where players duel their opponent with special cards. The boy was allowed to play with employees, who made him feel comfortable.
“Yu-Gi-Oh cards bring people together,” said Andrew Gonzalez, an employee at The Spider’s Web. Like the young boy, customers can walk into The Spider’s Web, flip through comics, or play games with staff free of charge. That type of environment is what keeps his customers coming back, Borrero said.
Though the shop’s primary focus is on comics, The Spider’s Web also sells a wide range of products from comic book versions of Hamlet and The Holy Bible to figurines based on characters from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” The variety found in comic book stores also attributes to its success, says its owner. Here you can even find small statues of e Batman and Catwoman embraced in a kiss to statues of the Egyptian god Anubis.
“I like to have an eclectic variety of everything to accommodate everybody,” Borrero said.
The lack of book stores in the Bronx is partly because many residents seem to be uninterested in reading, said Borrero. According to the Census, only 18.1 percent of Bronx residents over the age of 25 held Bachelor’s degrees or higher between 2009 and 2013. Comics are easier to read than traditional books because people can see pictures and all they have to read is the dialogue. And that might explain why comic book stores are popular here. Some might argue that even that at least is reading.
“The book store presents itself as a self-school. You decide that you want to learn and go there,” The Spider Web’s Gonzalez said. “Some kids don’t know the presidents, but everyone knows about Batman and Superman.”